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The Musician’s Guide to Touring Japan

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Japan is one of the best places to share your music. If you weren’t already planning your tour there when this article popped up, you might as well start now!

I just got off the plane not three hours ago, and looking back it was the best tour of my life. Let me share with you some of the tips I picked up along the way. But first, how come this faraway land of manga and sushi is so kind to the Touring Musician?

Firstly, as expected, Japanese audiences are absolutely some of the best listeners in the world. They will give you every ounce of their quiet attention during your concert, they will shower you with earnest compliments and honest criticisms, and they will try as hard as they can to articulate their thoughts in English, just for you.

Secondly, tickets to concerts are quite expensive by US standards. An average small concert ticket is around $20-25 and club-sized shows pull in anywhere from $30-45 USD*. Keep in mind also that CDs are sold at retail for around $18-23 and up, vinyl is about $28-32. So there’s a great opportunity for you to make good money on each of your concerts if you play your cards right.

Now here’s a short breakdown of your typical DIY tour concerns and how they differ in Japan:

What are your costs?

EXPENSIVE
Our last show at the Shibuya O-Nest in Tokyo
Our last show at the Shibuya O-Nest in Tokyo

Well, your plane ticket is the elephant in the room, that’s an obvious mega-cost to get over. If you can get your label or a festival promoter to help with airfare, or apply for a touring grant, it makes all the difference. See if you can position your band into one of these amazing summer festivals.

If you are driving, the tolls will really hurt your wallet. For a four-hour drive, tolls cost upwards of $90. Almost every time you get on a highway, you’ll be paying a toll. Parking is the other untamable beast, since there is no street parking in metropolitan areas.

Driving in general is expensive, though extremely fun and convenient if you’re lugging gear. All in all for an 11-date tour, our rental car cost $780, parking was around $150, and tolls came out between $300-400.

CHEAP

Sorry to bum you out with those costs, but the good thing is that there are solutions to everything! If you don’t want to rent a car, Japan’s trains are among the most efficient, fast, and wide-spread in the world! Book yourself a Japan Rail Pass and take almost any train throughout the country for no additional cost!

Try to stay with local musicians and promoters wherever possible. When that wasn’t available, Airbnb and Couchsurfing helped my band save a lot of money. For a real cultural treat, try staying at a capsule hotel, where you’ll essentially be sleeping in a morgue-like pod with wi-fi, a personal TV, and access to an in-house spa. Pretty trippy.

Food is moderately priced, but for cheap and filling meals you can always count on bento boxes, curry houses, and ramen. Ramen is basically a religion in Japan.

Book a tour and get packing!

Learn everything you need to know to book your own tour with our FREE course, Touring on a Shoestring!

Touring Dos and Don’ts

DO
  • My band with our Japanese record label, Ricco Label
    My band with our Japanese record label, Ricco Label

    Always shoot to work with a local (or national) promoter, and invite at least one local artist/band onto your gigs. Having somebody on the ground in the cities you’re touring through to help spread the word is essential. And not as many people speak English as you might expect, it’s great to have someone who knows what you need and is ready to help you communicate.

  • Print flyers and drop them at cafés, live music venues, music stores, etc. It’s a great way to get a few more people to the gigs. A bunch of people who came to see us had never heard of our band before but picked up a flyer and decided to take a chance!
  • Carry a black marker. Audiences will jump at the chance to get your autograph on their newly purchased copy of your album after the gig. Just remember to bow and thank the crowd immensely, anything less is a sign of disrespect.
  • Learn at least the following phrases in Japanese:
    • Thank you/Thanks so much – “Dōmo arigatō gozaimasu” どうもありがとうございます
    • Hello! – “Kon’nichiwa” こんにちは
    • Good Morning / Good Evening – “Ohayō” / “Konbanwa” おはよう / こんばんは
  • It is really difficult to balance the daily routine of load-in, soundcheck, performance, and load-out with tourist activities, so try to take a day or two off and spend it with the fellow musicians around you. Develop your relationships because in Japan they may last forever!
    Kyoto ryokan
    Playing in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel
  • Try to play and stay at a ryokan. One per tour will do. But if you end up with a deeply memorable night like we had in Kyoto (a 200-year old inn jam-packed with music-lovers in one of the most pristine-sounding wooden rooms we’ve ever played), you might need to book a few more gigs like that. Keep in mind these establishments aren’t for everyone. There are sound-curfews and quiet rules, so book accordingly.
  • Download some Japanese history podcasts or language tapes for your travels. Seriously, we had a blast listening to the shogunate tales of Oda Nobunaga and the Tokugawa clan on long car rides through beautiful terrain! Here are a couple recommended ones.
DON’T
  • Don’t forget to bow!
  • Don’t wear complicated shoes with crazy laces. You are required to take off your shoes in almost every indoor location. Wear shoes that slip on and off easily. My bandmate couldn’t have made a more annoying decision to bring lace-up leather boots!
  • Don’t plan on drinking too much at your concerts, there usually isn’t more than one drink ticket allotted per musician.
  • Don’t underestimate the smaller cities. All we looked for were venues with nice pianos around the country, so we booked both small and large cities and managed to play to a decent-sized audience pretty much every night. Curiosity counts in Japan (make sure you have a ton of music streaming online so people can check you out in advance).
  • Don’t give in to the temptation to eat ramen for every meal of the day.
  • Don’t be late for trains/buses if you’re using them. Every vehicle in the entire country is perfectly on schedule all the time. It’s actually incredible.
  • Perhaps this goes without saying, but don’t break any rules or ask too many favors. Japan loves its rules. Respect is everything here, you get back tenfold what you put in.

Some bonuses for the culturally curious: in Tokyo, try to attend a Sumo wrestling match, definitely look into booking a ticket and bento box at The Robot Restaurant for one of the strangest and most enjoyable nights of your life, and if you’re into sports, nothing beats a Japanese baseball game (go Yomiuri Giants!).

Cherry blossoms
Cherry blossoms everywhere!

We had the extremely powerful privilege of visiting Japan during the sakura season, when the cherry blossoms emerge and take over the entire landscape. We were able to share bonding experiences with tons of people for hanami, evening drinking under the lanterns hanging from the cherry blossom trees. We highly recommend touring during the springtime.

Lastly, touring can get pretty gritty. After you wrap up your tour and are certified Japanese celebrities, cleanse your mind, body and spirit in one of Japan’s thousands of onsen, or natural hot-spring spas!

+ Learn more: Start booking your own Japan tour with our FREE DIY touring course “Touring on a Shoestring”!

Have you ever toured in Japan? Share your favorite tips, sights, and venues in the comments!

*All $ amounts listed in this article are in USD.

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Jeremy Young

Jeremy is a music business guru and loves giving advice to young, emerging bands on how to make their tours more effective. He also plays guitar, publishes audiobooks, runs a record label, and is an artist working in sound media. He has performed and released material throughout Europe, Asia, the US, UK and Canada, mostly with his trio Sontag Shogun.

  • Ian

    One additional note: Don’t leave the band money on top of the car while filling it up with gas and then drive away.

  • Pingback: The Musician's Guide to Touring in Japan - Pyragraph()

  • Excellent article but please answer these questions – how much can a band expect to make from a club date on an average night? (Not including merch.) Did you book the dates yourself? How? Did you use a Japanese agency? Or did you have your Japanese opening act help book the dates? Thanks.

    • Jeremy Royal Edit

      hey meat ball man.
      Its kind of all over the place what you can expect on an average night. In Japan ticket prices range from the equivalent of like $15 to $45 (which is much higher than your average club date in the US), but you really need to have promotional strategies in place to target those fans or nobody’s going to come. That’s where it gets tricky, blogs, web-adverts, flyers printed and put in record stores locally, these all require some help on the ground.

      Contacting potential support acts, or labels, promoters, distributors, and other alternative types of sponsors for your event is kind of essential. I wouldn’t recommend touring Japan unless you have some support structures there that can help with contacting venues and record stores, etc. But if you did want to try to do it DIY, and you’re not afraid to lose a bit of money in exchange for a possibly life-changing experience (and a career-boosting investment), here’s some ways you can improve your chances of a successful tour:

      1- use expat communities to your advantage. Meetup.com, Facebook, Reddit, whatever, there are thousands of English speaking music fans in Japan, so if you’re really struggling to get your music promoted on Japanese blogs, etc. try to hustle and get the expats out.

      2- look for small independent labels that might want to republish your albums in a limited run for the Japanese market.

      3- do as much research as you can. it doesn’t take much more than some savvy Googling and obsessive note-taking to see where bands like yours have played before, and figuring out whether those spaces are right for you.

      4- hire a translator for a one time fee to translate and edit your cover letter to venues or promoters in Japanese, and use that letter to reach out to venues around the country.

  • Robson Galdino

    Very nice article, but I’d like to correct one thing: Japan Rail Pass is not available to professional musicians. Actually it’s not available to persons with any other than the single entry tourist visa. Traveling around by train, specially by the Shinkansen, is pretty expensive. If you’re in a band of 3 or more musicians I think the car expenses are more affordable.